Rakshinda Perveen, Pakistani survivor of gender violence, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Rakshinda Perveen: Respected guests of honour, Human Rights heroes, ‘sheroes’, mentors, teachers, friends, colleagues. Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I would begin by saying a sincere most thanks to my host, UN Watch, for giving me the privilege of speaking with you as a survivor. And I would like to add a special note of thanks for dedicating this session to Asia Bibi, for whom there is a deafening silence within my country, because the risk is too high when you want to speak in her favor and against Islam.
The abuses and violence against against women is prevalent in almost all countries and societies, and mine too, is no exception. So, the topic of my sharing with you is surviving with the stigmas in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
In the arena of human rights and women rights, the Islamic Republic is riddled with contrast, contradictions, confusions and conflicts. We can reflect more on the status of women and girls in general, and some unique women, like divorced women, or disabled women in particular later in the session. But to comprehend multi-layered faces of violence in the life of an ordinary Pakistani woman, maybe my personal experience would be of some meaning to you. So now without losing time – because I’m conscious of the time constraint – I must tell you my own story and that too on a fast track.
My parents were forced to experience two traumatic migrations. As a child and teenager, I tolerated, as it was the only option available then, silently from a respected figure in the family, what later on I realized was nothing else but child sexual abuse and exploitation. Becoming a medical doctor was my childhood dream and in spite of many hardships and emotional baggage, I was able to obtain a degree in medicine. However that was not all I dreamt off. I wanted to be a cardiologist. Cutting a long story short, I couldn’t materialise the second part of my dream into a living reality. An arranged marriage was placed on my cards.
Now, arranged is a polite expression for forced marriage. My highly qualified father was not ready to spend further on my education, and marriage was a better option than getting a postgraduate degree. So I was married, not to live happily ever after, but to endure different shades of human behaviour. The dowry, d.o.w.r.y, that I took was equivalent in monetary word to the fees of my studies at the Royal College of the UK – a physician’s had a distinct to follow it – but it couldn’t match the expectations of my in-laws.
Maybe I am unfair in calling them, or labelling them as greedy. Actually they acted like most of the pragmatic and conformist ones in Pakistani society. I further embittered them by failing to become, simultaneously, a money-making machine, a clinician above a cow’s kefir and a submissive wife willfully standing an adulterous husband, a weakened husband, who wanted a wife only for sexual pleasure. I could still recall that I had to oblige him to get cold water to drink because my dowry did not contain a refrigerator.
Let me pause my own story for a while and explain in the shortest possible detail what is [a] dowry, and the related violence. A dowry is not limited to the gift items given by the bride’s family at the time of the wedding and the violence, the dowry violence, is not limited to extreme and fatal forms, like kitchen stove deaths and bride-burning. When a gift becomes a demand, it becomes a form of violence and a spectrum of dowry violence has embedded in it many psychosocial abuses, harmful cultural practices, like child marriages, forced marriages, exchange marriages, denial of inheritance etc…
Each year in South Asian communities, thousands of young brides lose their life over dowry disputes. They are burnt, killed or mutilated by husbands and in-laws, whose material demands remain unfulfilled. Religions including Islam have always been interpreted in favor of power structures and men. Thus, it is not surprising to see [that] the dowry is prevalent in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, the patriarchal belt of South Asia, and within the South Asian Diaspora as well.
Now I’ll revert back to my own story. My brief married life was thus a tapestry of ordeals of dowry violence. My physical abuses, my emotional distress and psychological damages were all too normal, too usual, too customary, and too acceptable for all the witnesses I had to conceive against my will while my marriage was sinking. I tried to seek the help of some leading gynaecologist and obstetrician, some of them had been my teachers as well, and they counselled me to go ahead with the pregnancy as a child will save the marriage, and it is against the honour of an honourable woman. And some of the doctors who tried to help ask me to get the consent of the husband for the termination of pregnancy.
So what happened finally [was] I ended as a divorced woman when ultrasonography showed that I am bearing a girl-child. Now, let me rephrase. I ended as a bad Muslim Pakistani woman from a point of view of conventional morality, guarded equally by the educated ones and the uninstructed ones. Now, in a society where movies and television keeps on portraying that a good woman is one who remains in an abusive relationship – a good woman is one who, in the happy ending in movies, is when a woman gets married to the rapist – getting divorced was not something that could be welcomed. And I can reflect on it if somebody is interested, the stigmas attached with divorce in Pakistan, even these days later on.
From that point till to date – that happened in 1994 – my life followed and is still following a rocky pathway, as a self-made, fairly stubborn human rights defender, who is a divorced mother of a daughter and who still wants to survive with equality, dignity, without the push of the social class and pull of networking with power elites. So I faced in my mid-thirties, with my trimmer figure and relatively tender looks, many expressions of manipulation in urban, modern and educated settings. I’m still accused of not being able to pull a successful married life because of inability to please a man, cook efficiently, and make money like most of the women doctors do in my country.
Seen from a distance, I appear to be a successful woman, I have a CV. By no means do I look like a victim because the stereotyping of a victim is that of a poor, illiterate, fair younger person. I appear so strong that nobody actually realised that I can also suffer. When I approached nearly 30 years of age, I gathered that inner courage to start disclosing a little bit about my own life, and it took me another 10 years to disclose my exploitation as a child. I was a victim then, I am a survivor now.
So what are my learnings? I have learned that symptomatic violence like acid burns, chopped noses and rape injuries gained attention and are easier to understand, but subtle forms of violence are difficult to explain. Dowry has to be recognized as a form of violence against women, children and girls, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. It directly influences the status of a girl-child, even at the prenatal stage, and deeply impacts her life further, if she survives.
I have learned that any victim of violence is less hurt and disturbed by her or his experience, but more disturbed, shocked and at times completely shattered by the silence of the state, system, society and even the closest ones. The wounds inflicted on the soul are much more difficult to get healed than those taken by the body and flesh.
In practice, I have learned and I have seen that justice is not accessible to all Pakistani citizens equally because of low level of literacy. High levels of corruption, particularly legal literacy and legal – well I don’t want to say legal corruption but it is not that transparent – lack of awareness of one’s own rights, and [the] patriarchal mindset of the judicial systems, as well. Approaching the judiciary through a lawyer is expensive in terms of time, effort and finances.
I have learned that it is futile to be dictated by fate and defined by tragedies. One must stand up, speak out, resist, struggle and claim one’s right[s]. It is better to be a loser in the battle for rights. However, strengths have to be juxtaposed with certain strategies. I have also learned that I am luckier than a majority of women around the world, because I have been able to make a choice. Most of the disadvantaged people, especially women, have only two choices; either to continue to enjoy the convenience of subordination, or to be able to pay the price of empowerment. I was lucky, I am lucky that I chose; I was able to choose to pay the price of empowerment.
Now some of you, or maybe most of you, are wondering, why or how such episodes of abuse can happen in the life of an educated person, or an activist, and what is the point in narrating an old story of sorrow at this forum? I will try to respond.
Education empowers. No doubt, no question about it. But at the same time it takes away that raw courage. So at a very early point in my life, I recognize the absence of support mechanisms in my society and family. I developed a distaste for celebrating victimhood and decided never to seek the concessions of being a young, vulnerable woman.
So why am I here, and why am I sharing all of this? Dowry violence remains, and its consequences remain, buried in the sacred square of domestic violence in Pakistan, and they are shrugged off as a very private matter, in which personal choices and attitudes are to be blamed. No, this is not the fact. The fact is otherwise. No violence, including dowry violence, is a private matter. What an individual or family does is his, her, or their personal choice. But the response of the legal, medical and public sectors is certainly not a private matter. A state has to and should save the choices and rights of its citizens, including women and girls.
I know it is tricky in a terror-torn world to prioritize this issue, but I can only request that this issue merits a soft-spot and priority position in the peculiar context of Pakistan, where marriage is a must to enter institutions, and where religion and culture are not only mixed-up, but are more selectively applied to harm the rights of girls and women. The only justification behind the risk of telling my story, is to see a structured lobbying for a serious and sincere legislative action in my country, where even today, father’s kill their young daughters, girls hang themselves and many newly-wed brides meet “accidental” kitchen deaths because of dowry systems Dowry-demand, dowry-acceptance, dowry-offering and lavish weddings are strong proxy indicators of the deteriorating mental health and moral standards of Pakistani society.
A live dissection of one’s own life is tough and tiring. What enabled me to do this was the realisation that maybe this very act of mine would entice concerned powers in politics, governments, media, civil society and activists towards this relatively complex form of violence. I need your support. Rather, we, the victims and survivors of dowry violence in Pakistan, need the support of the international community. Because unlike most of the forms of violence against women, girls and children, and sexual and gender-based violence, dowry violence can be prevented through effective legislation, and effective implementation of a gender-sensitive judiciary.
The international community can make a difference in the lives of millions of Pakistani women and girls, in particular, by building a correct perspective of this violence and the magnitude and the cost of the violence, assisting us in devising the mechanisms to document this violence, sensitising the media, providing psychosocial and legal support to the victims, so that they can become survivors, prioritising dowry violence on agenda tables of elite forums. And last, but not least, to pressure the government of Pakistan for a legislation against this white collar crime called dowry.
My everyday struggle is based on the hope that a day will come when Pakistani women, all Pakistani women, will have all [their] rights, and victims of violence and divorced women would survive happily with dignity, with equality, without any stigma. Let a stigma be only the part of a flower and not be an ugly spot in the lives of powerful, educated and courageous Pakistani women and girls.
Thank you for your patience, thank you for listening to me.